Cowboy Coders

I’ll tell you straight out, you need spurs and a Stetson to do the job I’m on. They encourage the staff (we’re all collectively referred to as ’staff’ and we all bond with Team Hugs around here), they encourage us to ride bicycles to work.  Even though the office is in the middle of bleeding nowhere and situated inside the junction of two major motorways, they want us to ride bicycles. Cheap land and vicarious ‘green’ credibility I guess.  They should encourage us to come in on  horseback, if you ask me.

The local farmers grow cattle around here. For moo-juice mainly,  and there is,  particularly at this time of the year,  a pervading smell of fetid dung in the air. That kind of concentrated liquid dung that’s been collected from the entire herd and diligently stored and allowed to fester for six months in a cesspit, the awful stench of which city dwellers characteristically describe as “natural”.  Kind of like the job I’m in. It stinks, but all the permies commuting out of the city think its cutting-edge. They are agile, you see, and when the methodology and the environment both encourage cowboy coding, this is what you get: A huge stinking pile of crap. My job is to test it.

Journey to work I ride to the office in a Jag. It’s 40 miles through some spectacular countryside, the mist-filled valleys with tree-tops poking out like stranded surfers in a tsunami; the distant mountains crowding the commuter’s backdrop their snow-capped peaks glowing gold in the rising sun like colossal Pyramids paying homage to Ra; a river crossing – one of the larger tributaries of the Rhine; hills, dales, country lanes and even an alluvial flood plain to cross. All followed by a short, five-minute burn down the autobahn. Sure beats the tube. But, alas, the morning commute is the only good thing about the job – in spite of the dung smell.

The last time I worked in this region I wrote “The Contract From Hell” to describe the experience,  and I was dubious about coming back. But I didn’t have a choice. The bank I was working with had cut the rates once again and I would have been on less than the permanent staff had I accepted their insulting offer. All I had, like so many countless millions of others, was only enough savings to tide me over for a month or two. Then an agent called, interviews were arranged, and I was offered a new contract in a new industry – manufacturing. I took the job. What else was I going to do?

Seemed ok at first. Same hourly rate as last year, same expenses, same conditions, shit technology. I work with Unix and J2EE, and they got me working on .Net and C#. Same thing to them. I authored a post-graduate thesis on formal specification and predicate logic, and they’ve got me working in scrum teams where any mention of a “spec” is liable to get one a punch in the mouth. “We’re not paid to write code”, the young MS-certified Agilistas keep telling me, and that’s a good thing because if they were half of them would be starving.

So I’ve been hired to work in anything but my core competencies have I? Does this make me in any way special around here? Nope. It’s like everybody has been hired to do somebody else’s job. Project management and any kind of deductive reasoning ist verboten. But this is a rich company. The owners inherited it from their parents who had inherited it themselves from the current owners’ grandparents who in turn inherited it from some distant ancestor, possibly the only individual in the entire lineage, who seemed to know what he was doing. Back in the Eighteenth-century he made a fortune of historic proportions, sufficient to survive two world wars intact. So much money that even the billionaire Bollinger-quaffing boneheads he spawned have been unable to lose it all. Yet.

Cash Burndown

Money to burn, and they’re getting through it at quite a rate. It’s like every single project turns to crap, just as they roll it out. Doesn’t matter if it’s a new database schema, a business process change, major cross-divisional reorganization, or even a desk move. The end result is always the same: It’s ballsed up at the last moment, abandoned, and nobody knows what to do next. They’ve got to move thirty-million quid’s worth of delicate scientific instruments to another building across the street next month and it’s almost worth renewing just to stay on and watch them balls that up and all. They’ll probably drop them, or back a van into them, or discover the hard way that the floors in the other building weren’t designed for that kind of load. Something will go wrong. It always does.

Tell a lie: They changed the company name extension from “Ltd” to “(international) Ltd” a couple of weeks ago. It cost millions to reprint all the paperwork, redesign the applications, and update the websites, but thus far the name has stuck. The address published on the new websites was wrong, but they’ve fixed that (and one feels that relocating the company and it’s 2,000 staff to the erroneous address was one of the possible solutions discussed).

You never know what to expect next. One day we had a big fanfare as the company unveiled its latest new approach to product development. The entire department is called into a meeting the next day, two hundred and fifty of us, and told to drop everything else as this meeting had priority over everything. We settle down in the overcrowded meeting room, as best we can, the first slide is on the screen, and about half the room is relieved to see its in English. You can never be sure when you’re working in a German company which has adopted English as its “business language”. The head of department takes the stage and begins to speak. In German. Half the room cannot understand a word he is saying and woe betide anybody who interrupts.

Bored, I did a quick rule-of-thumb estimate based upon the average hourly rate, and calculated that this meeting had cost the company at least twenty-five grand just in staff wages, and more than half of that was wastage. An hour later, when he had presumably finished saying whatever it was he had to say, he took questions. The first was, “can you repeat all that in English?”  His answer, “You can get everything you need from the power-point”. Confident words that often a failed project portend,  and sure enough two days later the entire project – that they had been planning for over a year, into which  they had “invested an eight-figure sum”, that they had launched in a blaze of executive glory just a few days before in a global roll-out to thousands of employees – was scrapped. Nobody knows why.

Business Intelligence, Oxymoron

Another day the whole IT department, and only IT, was told to attend a presentation on “IP Security”, something to do with the internet we guessed. This presentation, it turned out, would be given in English. The intro slide was on the screen and it specified English language and identified the speakers which included the company’s chief lawyer, the head of business intelligence, and, suspiciously, the corporate head of Intellectual Property who were to speak on conference security and industrial espionage.

It was probably due to something simple like a Buttle/Tuttle typo in the distribution list, but when you’ve got senior executives flying first-class around the world to talk to their IP specialists only to discover some knucklehead has invited the great-unwashed IT department instead, you’ve got ‘balls up’ writ large. And you’re transfixed. The entire audience is on the edge of its seats wondering what’s going to happen next. Are they really going to go through with this? Do they honestly think that we don’t know what’s happened? Do they know? Still, its in English, so right language, wrong audience.

The business intelligence presenter told us that if, for whatever reason, we should go to a molecular biology research conference (which nobody from IT ever will), we should go into other peoples’ empty meeting rooms and rummage in their bins to see if maybe they’ve tossed any secret new formulas or inventions. One wag from IT interjected, pointing out to the lawyers that taking items from bins and/or waste paper baskets was, besides unethical, a criminal offence.

In the United Kingdom where many of these conferences are held, for example, you can be charged with “theft from persons unknown”. This company is blatantly advising their staff to go do it anyway. Go steal from dustbins, if the advice they are giving to their own scientists. You couldn’t make this up. See if you can guess how quickly those staff will be thrown to the wolves if they did steal and got caught, and how close to zilch will be their reward if in fact they did strike gold and stole somebody’s billion-dollar design and stupidly handed it over to their employers.

Then we’ve got the self-taught “Agile Coach” come in from outside, almost like they’d hired a clown for our further amusement. The coach arrives with a freshly minted pass-degree in Gender Studies in the one hand, and the free-pass of “independent businesswoman” in the other. Living the dream, she’s been bought in to train the scrum masters. Her idea, straight up, is to bring chocolate to the meetings because chocolate, she explained by referring to the conditioning experiments of Ivan Pavlov, “somebody once did an experiment with dogs and bells” is what she said and she probably thnks Ivan Pavlov is a Ballet dancer. Nevertheless chocolate, she asserted, will associate “positive feelings towards the meetings, and eating together promotes Team bonding”. Run that by me again. We can get better quality software by taking chocolate to meeting rooms and treating developers like dogs. Maybe you, dear reader, have once worked for a scrum master coached in this manner?

But all this is merely the entertainment they put on in order to keep us “engaged” in the horribly soul-destroying tasks we’re paid to do. A sideshow of side-splitting power-points in which lowly IT workers get to see senior executives making fools of themselves.  There is still work to be done though, and with agility no less. That means we are not allowed to speculate on what the customer requirements might be until after we’ve written some code.  The anti-process of continual improvement commands that we keep on adding classes until we figure out what it all does. Then we roll it out, and if it’s a turned out to be a new system for distribution, we’ll send the user manuals to catering. What is it the Agilistas claim? “We thrive on chaos”. What have I got to say in response? So did the Sex Pistols my loves, but that’s no reason to go out and cause it.